Is the Burlesque Scene Too Cliquey?

By on July 26, 2016

It’s a common complaint. Let’s say you’re putting together great burlesque acts and doing all the right things to get booked, but you just aren’t getting booked as often as you’d like or in the particular shows that you want to be in. At the same time, you see the same performers booked again and again and again. What are you to think other than that the burlesque scene is horribly cliquey? Here are a few perspectives from our Tease! Bang! Boom! Mentors…

balloons-headshot1Bombshell Betty: Before we can talk about solutions to this, I think it's important to discuss why so many shows seem to be so exclusive, and to do that we need to think from the producers' perspective.

Burlesque shows have many moving parts and require the work and consistent dedication of many people to be successful in the long term. Because of this, burlesque producers tend to work with people they already know, like, and trust. As we've discussed previously, they're looking for performers they can trust to be punctual, respectful, follow protocols, perform at a high level, promote the show and actually bring in ticket sales, and much more. They also tend to prefer to work with people who will contribute more than the minimum that I just listed. That might include volunteering in various capacities.

Beyond this, they want to work with people who will fit in with the existing group. Viva Valezz talked a bit in our interview with her [TBB Mentoring Members can read the transcript here] about what she's looking for when recruiting new troupe members, so I recommend re-reading that interview for more insight. While many shows don't explicitly state that they are a troupe and are actually open to having new performers, they often function as a sort of informal troupe in some respects, and that's why they tend to hire the same people again and again.

Just to share a bit from my own personal experience... The shows my team produces are student shows, so we mostly book from the school's graduate pool. However, we do occasionally bring in outside "guest" performers for the show. For a while, I had intended to have a guest or two every month, but I found that most of the guest performers didn't really promote - they'd often just post something on Facebook on the afternoon of the show and consider it done. Also, the dressing room at my venue is very small, so most of the performers stand off to the side to watch and cheer on the other performers, which creates a really supportive, family-like atmosphere. The guests often found somewhere in the venue to sit apart and not participate other than when they were on stage, not even trying to participate in the culture we've created around the events. So in my mind, yes, they brought one or two great acts to the stage, but that's not always enough. It's one thing if I know they're exhausted or they have something big going on in their life and just aren't feeling social, but if this seems to be their norm, they might not feel like a good fit for the show. Those aren't the only factors, of course. If they bring something unique and necessary to the show in other ways, I will continue to hire them. That said, it's important that even after you do get hired, you do still want to be conscious of all of these things if you want to be asked back.

freya-west-greenheadshot1Freya West: I love this topic. From a producing standpoint: I produce a monthly revue at my studio that is always open to submissions, but is almost always themed (so we get sometimes an overwhelming amount of videos, and sometimes we're desperate to recruit acts). In addition, I also produce with Music City Burlesque, which produces the largest quarterly show in town (our shows bring in 500-700 people). These are sometimes open to submissions, but are usually handpicked for a number of reasons. 1, the stage for the big venue is 40 feet wide. You have to bring your biggest and best in order not to get swallowed by that stage. 2, you have to be able to hold a very large audience, who are all drinking... which is different than holding the attention of an intimate crowd. Neither are easy, but they are different skills. 3, up until very recently, the pool of performers was not that deep, so it was easier to pick than open to submissions.

From a performer standpoint, obviously, I've set myself up to have opportunities with Music City Burlesque and with Delinquent Debutantes, which is why I'm able to do this mostly full time. MCB existed before I moved to Nashville, but I've built a lot of what supports me. I fully endorse performers doing their own thing, and I think everyone should produce at least once, if only to know what a pain it is. 😛 

Burlesque is a self authored art, and so we must create the kinds of shows, communities, and spaces for that. I did a lot of the "between the bands" or "with the band" gigs when I moved here. It paid tips or a drink tab, but it got me stage time, it got me fans, and people started to want more. It took years, y'all, but if you're willing to make opportunities, they're there.

RHA-headshot150Red Hot AnnieTo me, the clique-y element of burlesque can be both a positive and a negative.

What’s nice is that once you’re in, people will have your back, you’ll be given consistent opportunities (hopefully) and you’ll get intangible benefits (emotional connection) from the relationships that may far outweigh the financial – and even artistic – benefits of certain relationships.

But trying to break into a clique is a lot of work, and to me, if you want to have a real chance of getting into that clique, it means buying in to the culture of that clique. I think Betty does a great job of describing what that means in her response above where she mentions how having a pool of graduates influences the culture of her shows – if someone comes in and they don’t “buy in” to that supportive, cheerleader-type culture, it simply feels wrong and out-of-place.

For VAUDEZILLA! in Chicago, our culture is very boisterous and irreverent backstage - I can’t deny that we are incredibly clique-ish because we see each other at least twice a week and our shows are cast almost exclusively with V! performers and students. So if someone comes in and can’t go with the flow, they might not put a damper on things, but we might not feel “in sync” with them as a collective. That’s really important when you are a group of people who sees the show’s success as a Team Project - meaning that if we bring a guest in and they are making demands or not participating, yet they can’t, you know, sell tickets or promote the show, then they feel very heavy and unnecessary to us.

balloons-headshot1Bombshell Betty: If you want more gigs, and your local shows tend to be exclusive or "cliquey" you do have a few options:

First, you can do the work to become a member of the group. This will often take more than just sending an email asking to be booked, as we've already discussed.

Second, you can produce your own show. If you go this route, I recommend that you start small and build slowly. Don't expect to produce on the same scale as the established shows right off the bat! Chances are they didn't start at that level, either. I think it's better to have a small but successful show and build to bigger heights as you expand your audience than to bite off more than you can chew with a big, expensive venue that you can't fill.

Do what works best for you, not necessarily what everyone else is doing!

Do what works best for you, not necessarily what everyone else is doing!

It can also be helpful to rethink what you think of as show production. For example, organizing a few acts to perform as a short burlesque set in between two bands (or even opening for the bands) at a music event that fits the aesthetic of your burlesque can be a great way to start producing. Not only are you not responsible for producing the entire event and filling the venue on your own, but you'd most likely be reaching an audience that isn't already going to burlesque shows, which is a great way to build your own following rather than relying on a small, established group of local burlesque fans, like many shows do. (That's how you end up with shows where most of the audience is other performers! I've seen this in SF and NYC, and I've heard of it happening elsewhere as well.)

Finally, you can think outside of the box and come up with other creative opportunities for yourself. For example, Red Hot Annie mentioned in another conversation [TBB Mentoring Members can read the full discussion here] that she started posting videos of her acts online so that she could keep working when she didn't have a lot of gigs, and this eventually led to her being approached to produce her first show.

Ultimately, even if doors seem closed to you, there are actions you can take to get more gigs, so don't give up! Keep working on improving your acts, keep developing relationships within your scene, and look for additional opportunities to perform outside of burlesque shows. Persevere and eventually you'll find your place in burlesque - even if you have to create that space yourself! 

Do you agree? Disagree? What are your thoughts about cliques in burlesque?



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